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Business & Industry

The Most Dangerous Occupation: The Quest for Safety in Wyoming's Coal Mines

Accidents and disasters have plagued Wyoming coal mines since territorial times. In 1886, legislators created the office of the state mine inspector to help improve safety. Still, explosions and cave-ins killed hundreds of miners in the following decades. The worst accidents happened in Hanna in 1903 and near Kemmerer in 1923. Lawmakers continued to increase safety measures and eventually expanded the duties of the state mine inspector. Modern strip mining is far safer.

The Coal Business in Wyoming

In 1843, explorer John C. Frémont reported coal in what’s now southwest Wyoming. In the 1860s, the route of the new transcontinental railroad across Wyoming was chosen partly to access abundant coal deposits for fuel for the locomotives. Coal mining boomed, labor strife increased and Wyoming’s coal industry thrived despite worker strikes and a number of horrific mine accidents. Today, the state produces 40 percent of the nation’s coal, most of it from huge strip mines in the Powder River Basin in northeast Wyoming, for rail shipment to electric power plants in 34 states.

History of Guernsey Dam

Guernsey Dam on the North Platte River lies between historic Fort Laramie and Laramie peak and just a few miles from some deep, sandstone ruts on the historic Oregon Trail. The dam was completed in 1927, for hydropower and flood control. In 1934, crews from the Civilian Conservation Corps located camps near the reservoir. With design help from the National Park Service, they built the handsome stone-and-timber shelters and buildings at Guernsey State Park, in what became a showplace of state park design.

History of Glendo Dam

Before Glendo Dam could be built on the North Platte River in Platte County, Wyoming, complicated water-rights disputes had to be settled among Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado and the settlement approved by the U.S. Supreme Court. The process took more than a decade, and shows the difficulties of allocating water in the arid West. The earthfill dam, nearly 2,100 feet long and 190 feet high, was completed in the fall of 1957. It stores water for irrigation and recreation, controls floods, reduces sedimentation in the Guernsey reservoir downstream and produces hydropower.

Flaming Gorge Dam and Reservoir

In 1869, explorer John Wesley Powell named the red-walled canyon on the Green River in Wyoming Territory “Flaming Gorge.” The Flaming Gorge Dam, completed in 1964, helps regulate water flows and its power plant generates electricity. The dam is located in Utah, but the reservoir stretches north into Wyoming near the town of Green River. In 1968, the U.S. Congress created the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, which is located in the states of Utah and Wyoming and draws visitors from around the world.

Buffalo Bill Dam, Wyoming

Construction of Buffalo Bill Dam, completed in 1910 six miles west of Cody, Wyoming, was the key that opened about 90,000 acres in northwestern Wyoming to irrigated farming. Its construction was slowed by engineering difficulties and labor strife, but when it was finished stood as an engineering marvel, one of the first concrete arch dams built in the United States and the tallest dam in the world at the time.

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Encyclopedia | Natural gas has been flowing from the Jonah Field and Pinedale Anticline in western Wyoming since the early 1990s, bringing with it substantial profits, tax revenues, prosperity, social change, air pollution, and declines in local mule-deer populations. The story goes to the heart of Wyoming’s oil and gas culture, and raises important questions about energy production’s long-term costs and benefits.
Encyclopedia | The construction of the Union Pacific in 1868 gave rise to the towns, geography of settlement and the economy of new Wyoming Territory in 1869. Obstacles to construction were both physical and financial, and the railroad overcame them with sometimes slapdash results—hastily laid track and rickety bridges, watered stock and Congressional corruption. But the Union Pacific contributed enormously to Wyoming’s growth and development, made its modern economy possible and continues today as an economic power in the state.
Encyclopedia | As soon as Europeans came to the coasts of North America, they began trading for furs with the people who already lived here. On the first of June 1834, about 60 men and a caravan of horses and pack mules splashed across the Laramie River. They were headed for rendezvous in the mountains — the big summer fur-trading fair — and they were late.
Encyclopedia | The vivid, charismatic J. B. Okie raised sheep near Badwater Creek at the turn of the last century, and was so successful he was called “Sheep King.” A businessman with great vision, he soon owned half a dozen stores in small towns in central Wyoming, and eventually an equal number in Mexico. Lost Cabin, Wyo., named for the legendary Lost Cabin Mine, was his base. Okie built an opulent mansion there, a big bunkhouse for employees, bungalows for guests, an office building, a roller rink, a golf course and an aviary full of birds of paradise (left), cockatoos and macaws.
Encyclopedia | Rock Springs, Wyo. traces its origins to a coal mine established there in 1868 to serve the still-building Union Pacific Railroad. Ever since, the town has been enriched by the people who came from around the world to live and work there—in coal mines, on the railroad and, in recent decades, in trona mines to the west and the oil and natural-gas fields to the north. Rock Springs boasted 56 nationalities by the 1920s. Its political and economic fortunes have closely followed all these industries’ cycles of boom and bust.
Encyclopedia | Early Wyoming was seen as a hardscrabble place. But after 1900, dude ranches showed off Wyoming’s mountain scenery, fishing, hunting and hospitality, and thanks to the elite guests’ taste-making powers, Wyoming and the West became associated less with cold wind and distance and more with romantic glories.
Encyclopedia | Grass was free and profits enormous in the cattle business in Wyoming Territory — for a while. The business dates to the 1850s, but the boom came after the Union Pacific Railroad connected Wyoming ranges to eastern markets. For a time it seemed as if every investor got rich. Finally, a weakening market and the overstocked range could not withstand two years of drought followed by a terrible winter. The big boom busted, following an economic pattern repeated many times since in an economy still based heavily on natural resources.
Encyclopedia | Mary Hughes was just 17 years old in 1908 when the No. 1 Mine exploded twice in one day—and for the second time in five years—in Hanna, Wyo. Her story shows the devastating impact that coal mine accidents had on families like the Hugheses across Wyoming’s mining communities, and reveals her determination to survive disaster.

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